Sunday, September 27, 2009


(In this scene, Father John the Dwarf has inadvertently caused the incarceration of two bandits who tried to rob him.)

"I think maybe everyone ought to hear this," John said without preamble. When Benjamin had called in the other two, he coughed anbd began rather hesitantly, "My sons...I've been having a little talk with Father Poemen. It seems...well, there's a slight problem about what happened in Terenuthis. It seems I did wrong...By my action, two men were put to serious suffering, maybe even death. Father Poemen told me what happens in the jail there. Apparently they beat the prisoners until they get tired, the jailers I mean, then when they’ve rested they beat them again, and very often they die as a result. The prisoners I mean. Father Poemen is right, I don’t want that on my conscience.”

Zachary had told himself to be quiet, to listen, to suspend judgment, but at this he could no longer control his impulses, and burst out, “What did you do wrong? You were the victim!”

“I resisted. I called for help. If I’d just given them the money, right there where they tried to grab me, instead of leading them back into the town where they were captured, none of this would have happened. If I’d had time to think . . . But it all happened so fast.”

He sat with eyes averted, abstracted, as if replaying the incident in his mind. “No,” he said, looking up suddenly, “that’s no excuse. A true hermit should be ready for anything, any time. Do the right thing automatically.” It was my weakness, he was thinking, my admitting into my heart the demon of lust that has clouded my discernment, bringing in its train, as devils always do, seven devils worse than itself. Or rather, perhaps, lust was merely a symptom of my state, my sinful state, the festering of other, deeper impurities to which, but for that symptom, my pride would have blinded me. But he gave no hint of these thoughts, except to repeat, “No, no excuse at all”, with a kind of passionate sadness.

“I don’t understand,” Zachary said.

“It’s really very straightforward.”

“I mean they were criminals. They should be punished. That’s the law.”

“That’s man’s law. Did we come to the desert to keep man’s law?” John asked.

“Absolutely not,” Benjamin said.

“No, because we could have done that in the city. We came to the desert to keep God’s law. God’s law tells us to love our enemies and refrain from judgment.”

“But ... but ...” Zachary was so bewildered he could hardly get the words out. “How could you have any kind of society if everyone was like that? If criminals weren’t punished?”

“Whether you could or couldn’t, I haven’t the faintest idea,” John said flatly. “Nor should I have. We’re hermits. It’s none of our business. Magistrates and jailers and executioners have their business. What they do is between them and their consciences. Our business is to keep God’s law, and there’s no argument about what that is. Father Alonius taught that even if you witnessed a murder you shouldn’t report it. More than that, if the murderer hid in your cell and the police asked you about it, he said you should lie to them. Because if you didn’t lie you’d be the cause of the man’s death. And though it’s wrong to lie, it’s worse to cause death, even to your enemy, or I should say especially to your enemy.”

Zachary remained silent. What he had just heard seemed too absurd to be treated seriously. Surely it took the teachings of the gospel to ridiculous lengths, lengths to which not even Christ himself had intended them to be taken? Certainly it contradicted all that Zachary had come to understand, in Alexandria, as the teachings of the church. There, the church upheld the civil power as it had done for more than a lifetime, ever since the Blessed Constantine put a stop to the persecution of Christians and made Christianity the official religion of the Empire. Loyalty was the least one could offer in return for such protection. In Alexandria, the Archbishop was on the best of terms with the Prefect and the military Commander-in-Chief -- and how long would that last if he started releasing robbers and covering up for murderers? And the thought that these ideas came from Father Poemen, who everyone admired, who he had wanted to have as his teacher, was perhaps the most confusing and disturbing thought of all.

Benjamin broke the silence. “Well, what did Father Poemen say you should do?”

“Do? Do? It’s obvious, isn’t it?”

“You mean, get them out of jail?”

John nodded. “I put them there, didn’t I? So it’s my responsibility.”

“But how?”

“I don’t know. Father Poemen wasn’t much help there, I’m afraid. Said he’s spent his life as a shepherd and a hermit and he really knew very little about towns, jails or any of that sort of thing.”

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